Why are the Kingsmills killings uniquely horrible? There have been attacks which left as many or more people dead – the Shankill bomb, Bloody Sunday, the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the Omagh bomb – and there have been killings which were more depraved in their cruelty – some of the victims of the Shankill Butchers, for example. But it’s impossible to think of the Kingsmills killings without a particular sense of fear and shame.
Fear. Maybe that’s part of it. These were ordinary workmen on their way home, trying like most people at the time to live their lives without being caught up in the violence. We identify with that and we identify with their deaths. That could have been us being stopped on that lonely road.
Shame. The killings feed straight into the definition of the conflict that some people – usually outsiders – accept: it was Catholics vs Protestants. I lived in Canada in the 1970s and I got a lot of that: “How come you guys over there are killing each other because of religion? Everywhere else stopped doing that in the seventeenth century”. Except that the conflict here was and is not about religion, it’s about politics. Kingsmills, however, looks as though it was about religion and nothing else – the one Catholic is spared, the remaining Protestants are killed.
But Kingsmills had and has a political dimension too. It’s in the news today not because the media have suddenly woken to the horror of what happened, but because a report says it was the work of the IRA. BBC Radio Ulster/Raidió Ulaidh this morning featured Mark Carruthers grilling Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin about this claim. McLaughlin had to struggle to get it in but he succeeded eventually: the Kingsmills killings and who did them, along with all the other killings of the conflict, deserve to have the truth about them revealed. The only way that can happen is if a totally independent body seeks out the truth. At present, those bodies doing the seeking have been established at the behest of the British government, thus implying that Britain itself wasn’t in any way involved or deserving of investigation. Which is handy for Britain but fatal to the search for truth.
But the fear, shame and grief associated with Kingsmills demands the truth, as does the killing of Catholics that immediately preceded it, as do all the other murky killings that happened over several decades. But until we shake off two notions – that the conflict was essentially sectarian and that Britain was a decent-minded referee struggling to keep two savage tribes apart – there’s not a chance of the truth being told. End of blood-soaked story.